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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Keeping Jobs in Balance
distributed 3/26/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Hank and Marry Warren of Denver, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Jobs are important. Viable economies -- locally and globally -- have to be maintained as we move toward a just and sustainable world. But we also have to -- absolutely have to -- find a better way of dealing with the issue of jobs.

I am angry when essential steps toward environmental responsibility are derailed by short-sighted and self-interested demands for jobs preservation. I am disgusted by the lack of concern for community health and global vitality that is revealed when industries clamor for protection of their interests at any cost.

"Jobs and the environment" is a long-term and broad based problem, but two pieces in this week's news bring it to a head for me: the rejection of species protection measures at the recent CITES meeting, and complaints from the coal industry in Colorado. These headline issues show that we must find a more responsible way to deal with rapid changes in our economy and our ecology. The good news is that there are many effective models to guide us in a more constructive direction.

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Three weeks ago, I wrote about the devastation of bluefin tuna caused by rampant over fishing, and the proposal to place strong limits on the trade of that creature's flesh. Tuna was just one of many species that were considered for protection at the recent meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (usually called CITES).

This month, the CITES delegates voted to ban the international trade of Kaiser's spotted newt, a highly endangered salamander. From the news reports that I have seen, every other proposal for species protection was defeated, on the basis of protecting jobs. The press coverage of the conference included these statements:

  • "A U.S.-backed proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna prized in sushi was rejected Thursday by a U.N. wildlife meeting, with scores of developing nations joining Japan in opposing a measure they feared would devastate fishing economies. ... The tuna defeat came hours after delegates rejected a U.S. proposal to ban the international sale of polar bear skins and parts, showing that economic interest at this meeting appeared to be trumping conservation." (AP, 3/18/10)
  • Delegates rejected a "proposal that would have regulated the trade of red and pink corals worldwide. The latest round of voting ... underscored nations' unwillingness to forego immediate economic gains from exploiting natural resources, even when such activities are putting plants and animals under intense pressure." (Washington Post, 3/22/10)
  • "Japan and China ... torpedoed proposals to protect hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks -- heavily sought for their prized fins -- in the latest victory of fishing interests over global conservation efforts. The defeat of the U.S.-back measures was part of an aggressive campaign by the Asian nations to oppose all marine proposals" at the CITES meeting. (AP, 3/24/10)

In Colorado news today, "A bill aimed at curbing air pollution turned into a battle over jobs at a state Senate Hearing Thursday." (Denver Post, 3/26/10) HB 1365 -- which Eco-Justice Ministries has endorsed -- directs Xcel Energy to reduce smog-forming nitrogen-oxides pollution by up to 80% at its older coal-burning power plants. At four or five antiquated facilities along the Front Range, the utility would upgrade equipment to burn coal more cleanly, convert the plants to use natural gas, or close the plants.

The legislation -- which has bipartisan support and is backed by the utility -- is designed to address the area's anticipated non-compliance with federal air quality standards on haze, ozone and mercury. A related and substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a fringe benefit of the air quality measure.

The proposal has stirred a strong reaction from the mining industry, railroads and unions, all of which fear job losses. A union spokesperson said, "Working families whose livelihoods are based on the existing economy weren't at the table."

There is an important factor which is not mentioned in today's news story about industry opposition to the clean-air legislation. A huge new coal-fired power plant that is coming on-line in southern Colorado gives Xcel Energy the excess generating capacity that would allow the closure of old and inefficient plants -- and ensures that the utility will buy lots of coal for decades to come. The mining and railroad interests do not mention the benefit that they are gaining from the new facility in Pueblo.

A similar conflictual style is being used by two coal mines in western Colorado which are lobbying hard to be able to expand their operations into protected roadless areas. If they are not allowed to cut new roads and drill ventilation shafts into their mines, they claim that jobs will be lost.

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Tuna, sharks and coral are known to be at profound and increasing risk. Their extinction would bring far-reaching environmental impacts in ocean ecosystems. Their extinction, of course, will also cause the permanent loss of any jobs based on the exploitation of those species, and would disrupt economies and communities on a scale far greater than any of the proposed trade restrictions. The defeat of the CITES proposals shows a selfish and short-sighted protectionism that is blind to other options.

The Colorado coal controversies place the preservation of jobs in "the existing economy" as an absolute factor which overrides any consideration of public health, global climate, or ecological sustainability. The statements from business and labor do not acknowledge any need to deal with air quality or forest health. They only give voice to their own economic interests.

Different approaches are possible which value jobs within the context of a sustainable and environmentally healthy community. The Alaska salmon fishery is often cited as a model for a carefully developed management plan which has led to thriving fish and a vibrant fishing industry. After decades of conflict between loggers and environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest, several communities used an open discussion process to identify ways in which moderate restrictions on logging would lead to long-term sustainability for both the forest and the workers. There are many examples of retraining and redevelopment to replace businesses that are economically obsolete (whether the proverbial buggy whip, or SUV manufacturing), endanger public health or cause environmental damage. Communities can change. Environmental and economic interests can be addressed together.

Jobs are important, but demands to preserve existing jobs at any cost to the community and the environment are irresponsible. For the sake of the planet, we must have a more enlightened discourse. Preserving jobs cannot be the only consideration.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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